Look at Life: Too Many Books

19th May 2017

Confessions of a Reading Addict

Deborah Mulhearn

‘Twenty five million books missing from UK libraries’, screamed (or should that be ‘whispered’) a newspaper headline a couple of months back. Er… I think a few of them may be in my home. Not ‘unreturned’, to be honest, but I have plenty of ex-library copies bought from various library sales over the years and, latterly, online retailers.

My name is Deborah and I can’t stop buying books. Despite the existence of the Kindle and easy online access to out of copyright texts, I still prefer to read from an actual book. I have an awful lot of them. They strain the various shelves that I’ve built and bought and inherited. Even though I don’t get round to reading most of them, I keep on buying, and now I’m starting to lose not only count but also track of what books I own.

So I decided to make an inventory. This is more than a time-wasting pursuit, I told myself. When I go to greater glory (as my mum always put it), my family will be able to quickly identify the ones they want and ditch the rest. It will also stop me buying books I already have. As I still have some of the first books I ever bought, this has happened a few times.

We are encouraged to ‘declutter’ but, try as I might, I cannot get rid of my books. Occasionally I have a cull and feel triumphant if I manage to identify half a dozen, usually fewer, to give to the charity shop. I don’t know why I prefer to keep them, but I do. Whatever state they are in, I’m overwhelmed by the words, and overawed by the industry that has produced them.

Once, to help a friend of a friend get started as a practitioner, I allowed a feng shui ‘expert’ into my home. I was shocked when she told me I needed to get rid of my books. Bad chi, she said. Especially in the bedroom. The characters will leap off the pages and disturb your sleep. That made me laugh. And they’re all about ego, she said, all that knowledge on show. That made me indignant. My books weren’t in the living room, after all; they were hidden away in nooks and crannies in the rest of the house.

The inventory is a big undertaking, but enjoyable. Like old photographs, books are aide memoires to the past, to the people who recommended or gave them. They tell me where I was at different times in my life: literally, emotionally, intellectually.

There are vestiges of an alphabetical system on the shelves, but so old that I even found a row of ancient paperbacks with tiny holes bored through some of them, starting at Thomas Hardy but tapering out before the end of Nathaniel Hawthorne. No, I couldn’t get through The Scarlet Letter either! The tiny culprits have long since scarpered, but it dawns on me that bookworms aren’t just figurative; they really exist.

I find a cluster of hardbacks I’ve never read with a ‘withdrawn and sold’ stamp from a library somewhere in the north. I am transported back to the early 80s, not long before I left for London.

I pick one at random. Diminishing Circles by Barbara Rees. It’s quite short so I sit down and start. It’s about a callow northern girl adrift in London. Hmm. Nothing good comes of it. Uh-oh. There’s no entry for Rees in the Bloomsbury Guide to Women’s Literature (easily found under Reference in my inventory, ha!) but there’s an obituary online.

This inevitably this leads me further into the honeytrap of the internet (it’s not called a web for nothing), to look up other novels set in late 20th century London. Next thing I know I’m waiting on several new/old books from the treasure trove that is abebooks.co.uk – and they, too, will have to find a place on my shelves and be added to the never-ending inventory.

And, though I hate to admit it, it’s doubtful I’ll ever read them. Even the most avid and long-lived reader will only read a few thousand books in their lifetime. The thought of all my unread books pains me. Literally, as I get a crick in my neck from craning up to the top shelves to see the faded spines. I wish I could read a book in the time it takes to watch a film or a TV series, which we commit to easily.

But then, I waste hours online reading about the books I’ve bought, and the authors, rather than reading the actual books. This is a modern curse. If I don’t read them, why am I buying them? Not just to add to my inventory, surely. Now what did that feng shui expert say?

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